Elizabeth Hand is the author of eight science fiction novels, three short story collections, a YA novel, and the genre-bending thriller Generation Loss. She has won multiple Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, the Mythopoeic Society Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and multiple International Horror Guild Awards.
The Rejectionist: Your work deals frequently with very fluid ideas of gender and sexuality; even your characters that are biologically female do things that are not traditionally associated with the feminine, like demand human sacrifice (and then there’s Cass of Generation Loss, my favorite of them all). Do you think you were drawn to science fiction in particular because it offered an avenue for looking at gender in different ways? Can you talk a little about what made you interested in exploring “transgressive” ideas of gender?
Elizabeth Hand: Well, to me they never seemed all that transgressive, to tell you the truth. I was a tomboy as a kid—I was skinny and had cropped hair and was often mistaken for a boy—and up until I was about six I had my own very fluid ideas of gender in that I believed that, somehow, an individual could choose whether or not s/he wanted to be a boy or a girl. I identified more with boys than girls, so I assumed that eventually everything would sort itself out and I’d end up on that side of the bullpen. I was pretty bummed out when I realized I was stuck being a girl. I was like Anybody’s in West Side Story. I wanted to be tough. When we lived in Yonkers in a neighborhood full of kids, I was always getting into fights with boys and coming home with a black eye. I was provoking fights with boys. I liked fighting, even though I always got decked. I should have gone into Roller Derby.
Still, by the time puberty hit, I decided being a girl had its advantages.
I came of age in the 1970s, back in the Golden Triassic Era of glam rock and bisexual chic, so I pretty much absorbed my values from pop culture during a time when it was cool to dress in drag (women in tuxes, guys in frocks). Everybody slept with everybody else; AIDS hadn’t yet reared its fanged head, and in the crowds I ran with, everyone was either gay or pretending to be gay. I didn’t read much SF as a kid—I was a total Tolkien geek—but I started reading Samuel Delany and Angela Carter and Ursula LeGuin in high school, and I was definitely taken with the notion that here was a literature that could explore various notions of gender identity and how it affects the culture at large.
Dhalgren and Triton were probably my biggest influences back then, for their vision of what Delany termed (in Triton ) “an ambiguous heterotopia.” I liked LeGuin even though I found her SF novels too didactic—no breathing room in them for a reader. But I adored Angela Carter’s decadence, that whole 1960s acid vision come to life on the page; books like The Passion of New Eve and The War of Dreams. None of these works seemed particularly “feminist” to me. They just made sense. They seemed like blueprints for the way the world should be.
TR: How do you balance writing for love and writing for money? Do you have to turn off different parts of your brain when you’re working on different projects?
EH: Yeah, definitely. I’m trying not to do work-for-hire anymore, i.e., novelizations and the like. I don’t know how many prime writing years I have left, and I decided I wanted to focus as much as I can on my own stuff. I’m doing more teaching now, as faculty at the Stonecoast MFA program, which is a bit more rewarding than novelizing Catwoman. And I’m still doing book reviews, which I love—gives me a chance to keep the critical part of my brain cranking, especially when I can write at length in places like my column in FSF [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction].
TR: You wrote about apocalypse long before it was cool. Does the current cultural obsession with, like, Dystopian Vampires Apocalypse make you roll your eyes a little bit? What prompted your own preoccupation with apocalyptic fiction? Are you any more optimistic now about the survival of humanity?
EH: I probably do roll my eyes sometimes, but I think it’s good that new writers (and old ones) are thinking about the problems facing us—which seem pretty fucking insurmountable. I was obsessed with the end of the world from a very early age—I was raised Catholic, and I must have been exposed to the Book of Revelations at Mass, and it then became conflated with air raid drills, which we practiced in kindergarten, and all the monster movies where Godzilla and Rodan and Tarantula and the like got exposed to the atom bomb and whomped Tokyo.
I was obsessed with monster movies, too—if I had kept all my issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I never would have had to write Catwoman. I read 1984 at a precocious age, like 8, and when I did the math I realized that Julia, Winston Smith’s lover, was born the same year I was, 1957. I read that book over and over again, with the 1960s as a backdrop, anti-war and anti-bomb protests and this general pervasive sense of doom. Which in some ways didn’t let up with the 1970s, certainly not with the environmental movement. There were such great environmentally-themed SF books from that time, stuff like Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and Dune. I wrote Glimmering in that spirit, a novel that anticipated a lot of terrible stuff that actually did come to pass in the last decade. Unfortunately, it was published in 1997, at the height of the go-go 90s, and that terrible bleak vision of the near-future was not what anyone wanted to read about. But it’s being reprinted next year by Underland Press, with a new intro by Kim Stanley Robinson. So I’m very excited about that.
I really did think the world was going to end, for a very long time. For years I’d have night terrors about nuclear attacks. All those early books of mine channeled a lot of that terror, and for a long time I thought I might not ever write about anything else. I thought Glimmering was real, and that was the world my kids were going to have to live in. I was stockpiling stuff for Y2K.
But finally there came a point where I thought, you know, maybe things aren’t really that bad, maybe I’m just crazy to be obsessing about all this apocalyptic shit and I should give it a rest. I can vividly remember thinking this, and writing it to someone in an email—and that was at the end of August, 2001, a few weeks before 9-11. At which point I thought, well, maybe not.
No, I’m not terribly optimistic about our future. But, fifteen years on from writing Glimmering, I feel more like Leonard Thrope dancing at the edge of the abyss than like Jack Finnegan. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
TR: How much has punk influenced your work?
EH: I was involved in the DC and NYC scene from about 1975 through the early 1980s, but as a participant observor, not an actor. I saw a lot of great shows by now-classic bands where there were literally only a few dozen people in the audience. The scene was tiny, especially in DC, where I lived at the time, and while I liked seeing bands in NYC the clubs were more crowded there. In Washington I could stand about six inches away from Joey Ramone’s sneaker and there were only about twenty people on the floor behind me. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this scene is so amazing, this music is so fabulous, this is going to be HUGE and I AM PART OF IT.” I thought it was, you know, going to be like the 1960s, a huge seismic cultural shift culminating in some sort of huge punk Woodstock or something.
But it wasn’t. Punk fizzled out by 1979—I really did have the experience I write about in Generation Loss, of being inside a Fiorucci boutique with these seventy-five dollar ripped “punk” t-shirts for sale inside and realizing it was over. Of course if I’d been savvy and had the bucks, I would have bought one of those shirts, which were by Malcolm McLaren. And of course, punk really did end up percolating through the culture at large, though it took a little while for people to figure out how to sell it at the mall. In 1979 my boyfriend, a jazz lover, absolutely hated The Ramones. I told him, “This is great American music! Some day, people are going to think of these guys like we think of the Beach Boys!” He thought I was nuts. But I was right.
I still love it. I love lots of other music, too, and always have, but punk’s the soundtrack of my youth. I think you never escape the music you’re listening to and seeing when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. So I feel really fortunate that I was at the right place at the right time.
TR: You often write about protagonists who make colossally unsympathetic choices or giant mistakes, and you’ve talked elsewhere about your interest in complex, troubled artists and writers whose real-life choices may be a little hard to watch. Why do you think people who fuck up—like, REALLY fuck up—are so much more interesting in fiction and in life?
EH: Well, I was always kind of a fuck-up when I was younger, and everyone seemed to like me okay. I have kind of a soft spot for lovable losers and misfits and outsiders, people who, in real life, can be very difficult to take. I’ve known quite a few of them, and I really do think you can learn from people who see the world from a different angle. I don’t mean for this to sound condescending—I’ve been close to people who are mentally ill, or have serious issues with drugs or alcohol, and I know that their lives can be terrible and tragic, and the terrible fallout on their families is incalculable. I don’t have a romantic view of mental illness, or of individuals who are deeply troubled or damaged.
But I do have some experience of living inside that kind of self, of being out of control and terrified and unable to get my balance. Finding myself “at 90 degrees to the rest of the world,” as the Beta Band puts it in their great song “Round the Bend”: “It’s not much fun, you can take it from me.”
It’s not fun, and I’d far rather be calm and sane and productive. For a few years in my late teens/early twenties, I went off the rails a bit, and Cass Neary is a version of the self I might have become if I never rebounded from that.
And there’s definitely something cathartic about writing from her p.o.v.—she’s all id, and I can channel a lot of anger and frustration through that voice. After Generation Loss came out, I heard from a lot of women of a certain age (mine), women who now have teenagers and jobs and carpools and aging parents and all the rest of the baggage that goes with being middle-aged and middle class, all of them saying how they related to Cass because that’s what they were like at twenty, messed up and desperate and vibrating in the dark. There’s something empowering about the notion of a middle-aged woman who can knock back a fifth of Jack Daniels and an ounce of crank and kick ass in a pair of vintage Tony Lama steel-tipped cowboy boots.
As for writing about people who the world perceives as royal fuck-ups, I try to give them the happy endings, or at least happier endings, that evade them in real life. Maybe that’s wish fulfillment, or arrogance. Maybe I just relate better to flawed people because I’m one of them. I always think of Leonard Cohen’s great line: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”
TR: Some books you’ve read lately and loved?
EH: I’m reading Sebastian Horsley’s autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld, which is wonderful and terribly sad—he died of a heroin overdose just a few weeks ago. Also reading Rick Moody’s massive (900 pages!) new science fiction novel, The Four Fingers of Death, which is a surprisingly old-fashioned (but very good) SF novel masquerading as a meta-fictional novel. Or it is so far; I still have hundreds of pages to go. Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath was a lot of fun, also Larry Doyle’s Go, Mutants!
Tomorrow: An interview with Nnedi Okorafor
The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York City literary agent. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com, where this interview originally appeared.